The son of a construction worker, Michael Lacey came of age in Newark, N.J., before moving west in the late 1960s to attend Arizona State University. Lacey had already dropped out in 1970, when he and a pair of students published the inaugural issue of Phoenix New Times as a response to the ultra-conservative local media’s coverage of campus antiwar protests.
With Lacey at the helm of New Times as executive editor and his business partner, Jim Larkin, heading up the advertising side, the feisty, free weekly grew its circulation while exploring a variety of social and political issues and gaining prominence among the nation’s growing roster of alternative newspapers.
In 1983, New Times purchased Westword, Denver’s news-and-arts weekly, commencing an expansion that ultimately would embrace a multimillion-dollar conglomerate of 17 like-minded papers from coast to coast, including the LA Weekly, Miami New Times, and the granddaddy of all alternatives, the Village Voice in New York City.
Lacey and Larkin were arrested at their homes and jailed on October 18, 2007, for revealing in Phoenix New Times that grand jury subpoenas targeted the paper’s writers, editors, and — in a breathtaking insult to the United States Constitution — its readers. The arrest was instigated and executed by Joe Arpaio, the notorious anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Following a public outcry, all charges were dropped within 24 hours. The subpoenas likewise were quashed, putting an end to the grand-jury inquiry. A subsequent investigation revealed that the grand jury warrants were counterfeit, issued by a vengeful prosecutor who bypassed legal safeguards.
In late 2013, Maricopa County paid $3.75 million to settle a lawsuit Lacey and Larkin had brought for wrongful arrest. The following year, the business partners used the money to establish the Lacey & Larkin Frontera Fund, with the aim of distributing the proceeds from the settlement to Latin-American groups throughout the state of Arizona.
Thanks to its founders’ steadfast commitment to the First Amendment, Village Voice Media Holdings, as the company came to be known, earned a reputation for long-form investigative reporting, magazine-style feature writing, and sophisticated coverage of music, food, film, arts, and local events.
By the end of 2012, when Lacey and Larkin sold VVM to a group of longtime company executives, the chain reached nearly 9 million print readers every month and another 56 million viewers monthly online and had garnered hundreds of journalistic honors, including the Pulitzer Prize.